Tenure is regarded as central to the academic mission, although nowadays only a quarter of all higher education faculty (and precious few professionals) gain tenure. But practically all American institutions with aspirations beyond mediocrity have some kind of tenure system, and for an institution of international standing like USF, tenure is critical to its mission.
The modern system of academic tenure is less than a century old, and as historic documents like the the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement of Principles makes clear, it was originally intended to protect teachers. But while the rhetoric of tenure hasn't changed, its function has. For research institutions, tenure is a critical tool for (research) faculty screening and, later, retention. For young research faculty, tenure has become the do-or-die bar. Senior faculty (with tenure) can complain or, even better, campaign for reform. But new faculty have to be practical. You get tenure or you're out. So how do you get tenure?
In theory, tenure is granted to those assistant professors who perform well in teaching, research / scholarship / creative works, and service. In practice, most departments have no particular expectations for service - either on campus or off - and one of the nation-wide grumbles is about assistant professors (especially women and minorities) who are asked to perform lots of service, and then find that service didn't count much towards tenure. Every department should be clear about what it's service expectations are, and assistant professors should get and demand clear statements about service. In reality, tenure usually depends on teaching and research, not necessarily in that order.
While the status of teachers has been downgraded, education is in the midst of a revolution, and this is affecting how teaching is evaluated. Student performance, student evaluations, student retention, and other reams of data are pouring into departments that are just learning how to deal with "big data". At USF and many other campuses, the primary metric has been the student evaluations, and these have often been naively applied. At the moment, that's the data that USF makes readily available, and departments are likely to continue to over-rely on them. A prudent assistant professor will aim to perform credibly in the metrics that the university relies on.
Even in research departments, assistant professors should not neglect teaching; the cynics may be right in claiming that while spectacular teaching performance will help only somewhat, poor teaching performance will hurt a lot. If there are problems, assistant professors should not be shy about asking for guidance from the department's senior professors in charge of undergraduate education.
Big Data and external funding are transforming the evaluation of research, scholarship, and creative works. Departments once relied on perceptions of senior faculty, the (subjective!) prestige of the journals that tenure candidates publish in, and on external letters; now they are prone to check citation impact factors, grant awards, and similar metrics. At any rate, assistant professors need to get a clear statement of expectated performance and how that performance is measured. But that means being clear about the criteria.
Standards for the Decision
We must distinguish between the criteria for granting tenure and the process by which tenure is granted. Many documents claiming to be about criteria are actually about process. Knowing about the process is helpful, but during tenure-track years, assistant professors are concentrating on meeting the criteria. So for much of that time, it is criteria that would be most helpful.
Many units rely on the judgment of the faculty, or of the tenure committees, which presumes that the decision-makers have at least some vision of what they want. In addition, relying on judgment without written criteria opens the door to mischief, so it may be wise to get it in writing.
If tenure criteria are communicated properly, most candidates will be able to build a solid record, or find employment elsewhere, prior to the application year. The tenure process is extremely labor-intensive, and an actual tenure denial (especially one that takes people by surprise) is traumatic, so communication is vital to prevent the damage to morale and trust that arises from surprise denials, particularly surprise denials at higher levels.
- It is important to assistant professors to know what the criteria for tenure are. This goes beyond, say, inappropriate service assignments. For example, in research, the candidate needs to know what kind of publication record - and how it's measured - is expected, and also what kind of external funding record is expected. This means that the individual departments need criteria that their tenure-track faculty can understand.
- It is important for departments to know what the college and university criteria for tenure are. College and university criteria are necessarily broader, but they should are articulate with those of the departments. A department should be able to look at college and university criteria and determine if it meshes with their own.
Tenure criteria will necessarily vary from department to department, and only the departments have the expertise to compose their own criteria. That means that college-wide and university-wide criteria will have to be broad enough and flexible enough to articulate with all these departmental criteria. It also means that in composing these criteria, faculty and administrators all along the hierarchy will have to pay attention to criteria at the various levels. It is wasteful and traumatizing to address unsatisfactory departmental or college criteria by reversing tenure decisions at a higher level; senior administrators have the obligation to communicate expectations to the lower units and to vet the criteria of those lower units.
A successful tenure policy uses criteria and a process that everyone understands, which promotes valuable candidates to tenure while encouraging the others to follow more fruitful options, all in a timely manner and with a minimum of trauma.
Making the Decision
Tenure was, and perhaps still is, the most important decision that traditional institutions make. It is the faculty who make up the institution, it is the faculty who do the work, and tenure determined who the faculty were. As tenure fades, other types of personnel decisions are becoming relatively more important, but tenure is still front and center. That means that the credibility of the institution is at stake in tenure decisions, so both the substance and appearance of those decisions have to be serious. The process and criteria have to be supported by the community and transparent to the participants, for otherwise appearances and perceptions of caprice, favoritism, and malice will corrode the good will of the community and undermine the mission of the university.
Technically, the Board of Trustees decides who gets tenure. In practice, a tenure application rises through a hierarchy while collecting recommendations en route. The department/ unit committee and/ or the department/ unit faculty, the department/ unit chair/ director, the college committee, the dean, the provost, and the president all make recommendations, and then the Board gets out its rubber stamp (making tenure decisions is not what the Board is for). If the tenure criteria has been properly communicated to all levels (department/ unit up through the provost's office), there are no real surprises.
In fact, for any particular candidate, it is the department that is the most competent to determine whether that candidate satisfies the criteria; that is another reason why the hierarchy should address the criteria, in advance, and avoid acting outside of its competence.
Some candidates were great and were definitely going to get tenure, some were stubborn in the face of advice and did not get tenure (there should be few of these), some were sort of on the line and led to a lot of nail-chewing but no matter how it turned out everyone knew they were on the line. All candidates should fall in these categories: unless something was seriously wrong, there should be no candidates denied tenure to the consternation of the department and college, and there should be no candidates granted tenure to the shocked surprise of the department and college.
USF's current tenure guidelines are those posted in 1998; the "criteria" in these guidelines are very broad. The procedure for granting tenure is defined in Article 15 of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement; essentially, a candidate puts together a tenure packet which is reviewed by the tenured faculty of the departmental/ unit, the candidate's supervisor, the college, and the campus.
This January, USF Tampa Provost Ralph Wilcox charged the USF Tampa Faculty Senate to Review and Revise the Tenure and Promotion Guidelines for USF Tampa, which means reviewing USF Tampa's situation, environment, and prospects, and proposing a new USF Policy on Tenure and Promotion. On the last page is a useful reminder: the current tenure system in America is less than a century old, and considering the many changes likely to occur during this coming century, a certain amount of thinking outside of the box may be called for. For example - recalling that tenure was originally intended to protect teachers - one of the Charge's questions is: Do we include instructors in the proposed USF Policy on Tenure and Promotion?
Tenure at USF Tampa
The USF Tampa provost's charge applies only to the USF Tampa campus, as St. Petersburg and Sarasota/ Manatee have the academic autonomy to develop their own Tenure/ Promotion guidelines specific to the missions of their respective campuses.
Meanwhile, the United Faculty of Florida (representing USF faculty and professionals) and the Administration (representing the Board of Trustees) are bargaining a successor to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under law, the USF Tenure and Promotion Guidelines must be consistent with the Collective Bargaining Agreement; in fact, if there is a discrepancy, the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevails. On July 12, UFF placed two proposals on the table, a new Article 15 on Tenure and a new Article 14 on Promotion. UFF did not propose bargaining criteria, UFF only proposed a careful description of clear procedures designed to keep the system honest and professional. However, notice the title of Section 15.3: "Criteria for Tenure" (and the title of Section 14.2, "Criteria and Procedures for Granting Promotion"): having criteria may be a good idea.